The Agenda: What is the future of the Great North Run? - Part Two

Standing still is not an option for Great North Run chief Brendan Foster as Mark Douglas found out when he caught up with him

Mo Farah
Mo Farah

It is a message that the 50,000 Great North runners will happily endorse: If you stand still, you are doomed to failure.

Every year Brendan Foster challenges his team to improve the Great North Run weekend. The route itself – from Newcastle to South Shields across the iconic Tyne Bridge - has never changed but nearly everything else has evolved and mushroomed.

As they head into a year which will see them beat New York, Chicago, Boston and London to the millionth finisher there are big plans afoot for the North East’s biggest single-day sporting event.

A huge push to get more women running the event, for one. And also an attempt to democratise the burgeoning Great City Games series to make athletics more of a mass participation sport.

“People always say about the Great North Run it happens. They can never think of anything else - it’s the same every year,” Foster tells The Journal. “You cannot leave it alone. If you leave it alone then it withers.”

The first of these is a major push to try to tip the participation of women onto level pegging with the men. “We are going to start an initiative – the details will come clear later on,” Foster said.

“In the first Great North Run it was about 11% of the runners who were female. Now it is about 40%. Our mission for the future is to make it 50/50. The first million finishers would be about 30 per cent but we want the second million to be 50 per cent.

“There is going to be a serious effort to make it equal opportunity. They are the big projects we have.”

While the weekend’s headlines will be dominated by Mo Farah, Tirunesh Dibaba, Hailie Gebrselassie and Kenenisa Bekele, Foster feels - and has always felt - that the fun runners are the real stars of the show.

“It is not corny, because it is absolutely true,” he said.

“If you look at our poster, we have Hailie, Mo Farah, Kenenisa Bekele and the two greatest female athletes of all time. And David Weir, the most successful Paralympian of all time.

“But they are not the stars of the show. They’re not. If you only had them five you haven’t got what you’ve got. The 50,000-odd provide the platform or the stage for them to perform. Those 50,000 give you the visions and shots. They would be incidental because that’s athletics but this isn’t athletics, it’s different.”

Before Sunday’s main event, the City Games will reach their sixth year with some of the stars of track and field on show in a meeting that has become well established on the circuit as an enjoyable way to wind down a year’s competition.

It is serious too – any meet that can pull in Olympic champion Sally Pearson has to be that - but the fact it is free and open to all is a major draw for athletes.

Still, Foster thinks something is lacking. He wants to make it much more like the Great North Run, and says plans are afoot to democratise the event.

“The next challenge is with the City Games. We need to make that the participation equivalent of the Great North Run,” he said.

“We’ve now got the kids running on the Quayside. We’ve got the short 5k on the Quayside and all these elite sprinters doing things. What we have to do is to review the City Games formula.

“OK, it’s all the stars and Olympic champions, but before that it needs to be the Participation Games. There are kids who can run 100metres but can’t run a marathon. The next development of that is to make it as inclusive as the Great North Run is.

“The City Games is established now, but we have to have it where we’re trying to find the fastest kid in Newcastle, the fastest kid in Gateshead on the Friday . . . Then it will go to the fastest kid in the North East on the Saturday.

“It’s a bit lacking. It’s the bit that hasn’t been quite conquered yet. It hasn’t got a soul just yet.”

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